How do you get to know your students?

In the past week, several novice teachers have asked me this question. It's a good question to ask and it is especially important in the first few weeks of school, but getting to know your students is a year long process. Some of them you will know a lot about very quickly, others will surprise you with important information in May. Getting to know your students isn't a step in the teaching process; it is a mindset professional educators adopt that keeps them open to the clues, tidbits, and details that help them know their students strengths, needs, and interests.

I'm sure there are exhaustive lists of "get to know you" activities on the internet. These are just some of the things I have been using for the past few years that work for me.

I learn their names as quickly as possible.
This is probably pretty obvious. I have some tricks for it, but it can still take me a week or more to get them all in my head.  Name learning tricks:

  • I greet them all at the door and ask their name.
  • I assign seats and keep them in the same seats until I know their names.
  • I call roll out loud for a few days. 
  • I walk around and peek at the names on their papers as I practice their names in my head. 
  • While my students are working on a group activity (getting to know each other), I quiz myself on their names. 
I learn something about them:
  • One of my "get to know each other" activities is to ask my students to make a list of the names of the people at their table and write down one fact about each person. I collect their lists and learn those facts. 
  • I give them a student data form that asks about their previous learning experiences and their interests. 
  • I give them a reading survey to get to know what they like to read and find out more about their reading lives. 
  • I ask them to write me a letter about themselves during our first class period. 
  • We write six word memoirs. 

I watch them:  I know this sounds creepy, but kid watching can tell you a lot. 
  • I'm watching to see when and how a student gets distracted from a task. 
  • Who stalls about getting started on work? 
  • Who avoids reading and needs help picking a better book? 
  • I look to see how they relate to one another. They come to me with a long history of going to school together. Many of them went to the same middle school and some go even further back. What social dynamics have they brought to the classroom this year? 
  • Who is smiling? Who looks frustrated? Who seems isolated? 
  • All of these factors will impact their learning.

I listen to them:  The conversations before, during, and after class tell me a lot about my students. 
  • What are they happy about? 
  • Which classes are they struggling with? 
  • What are they posting online? 
  • During class it is pretty obvious which students have a lot to say and which prefer to play the invisibility game. 
  • Do they challenge each other's thinking? 
  • Do they contribute their own ideas? 
  • Do they speak in complete sentences? 
  • Do their words reflect understanding or confusion? 
Getting to know my students takes the whole year, and some I still feel I never know well enough. In addition to getting to know them, I let them get to know me. Their first activity in my class is to write down a question they have, but leave their name off.  At the end of that period I start pulling the questions out of the bowl and answering as many as I can. I give them answers that are helpful, honest or flippant depending on the question and the mood in the room at the time. Some are about school things, "Where is the cafeteria?" Some are about our class, "How much homework will we have?" Some are about me, "Are you a fun teacher?" I let them figure out that last one for themselves over the next 180 school days. 

You can visit my class blog post from Day 1 from last year. The one for this year is similar and goes live on Tuesday morning.